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To say being married to an addict is difficult would be the understatement of the year. Let’s face it, even without addiction relationships are hard work. Setting and maintaining healthy boundaries is crucial to finding health and happiness both for the addict and their betrayed spouse.
When I first heard the word boundaries I was both empowered and confused. What exactly are boundaries? Are boundaries Christlike? How do I go about setting a boundary? How do I know if my boundaries are healthy?
What are Boundaries
Boundaries allow us to take responsibility for ourselves while not shouldering responsibility for the actions of others. Boundaries are invisible lines that say what we will and won’t tolerate.
Boundaries are like the fence that defines our property line. There is a gate and we can let people in when we choose and boot them out if they are disrespecting our wishes. I love what Dr. Cloud, author of Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No To Take Control of Your Life, had to say in a recent blog post about boundaries.
Personal boundaries allow you to have ownership over your own thoughts, feelings, actions and reactions, while freeing you from being responsible for anyone else’s. Virtually everyone sets some form of boundaries without thinking about it, but when we consciously define our boundaries, we gain a huge degree of control over our happiness, comfort and the quality of our relationships.
A boundary is a simple statement saying what you will or won’t tolerate and what you will do if that boundary is violated. Remember, a boundary without a consequence is simply a threat. Boundaries are not about controlling the actions of others. Boundaries are about controlling yourself and defining how you will respond to keep yourself safe in unhealthy situations.
Are Boundaries Christlike
One of the biggest stumbling blocks for me when I first learned about boundaries was the feeling that I wasn’t showing Christlike love when I was enforcing them. President Russel M. Nelson said “Real love for the sinner may compel courageous confrontation—not acquiescence! Real love does not support self-destructing behavior.”
God himself has given us the perfect example of healthy boundaries, we call them commandments. He does not force any of us to obey, but he does withdraw his spiritual guidance, peace, and certain blessings when we choose not to follow the requirements he has laid out for us. There are also many examples of healthy boundaries from Jesus Christ’s life here on Earth.
Remember the rich young man? Christ told him to sell all that he had and follow him. Christ did not encroach upon the man’s agency, he simply said if you do these things then you will be welcome in my presence and in heaven.
Let’s look at the story of the young woman caught in adultery. Christ didn’t tell her accusers that they couldn’t enact justice. He simply reminded them of their own imperfections then allowed them the opportunity to make the right choice.
Jesus also took time to care for himself. He had boundaries that said “I need time to commune with my Father” and there are a few different accounts of him going alone into the mountains or wilderness, once for 40 days! If you want to read more about Christ setting boundaries this post from Soul Shepherding is wonderful.
How Do I Set Boundaries
As stated above a boundary without a consequence is simply a threat. Threats are useless. Remember boundaries aren’t about controlling others, they are about controlling yourself.
We all set boundaries naturally every day through our choices. We choose not to spend time with someone who is unkind. We choose to rest and engage in self-care rather than accomplishing yet one more to do task on our list. We choose to disengage from emotionally abusive conversations. We choose to speak up when we something unfair happening.
When dealing with an addict I’ve found that my boundaries around his addiction need to be very clearly stated. This is the pattern I use for most of my boundaries:
- State the action that you can’t tolerate
- State how that action makes you feel
- State the consequence/boundary you will enact to create safety for yourself
Here are some examples of some actual boundaries written out by some of my fellow WOPA (wives of porn addict) friends.
- When you choose to watch pornography I feel betrayed, hurt, and angry. I need to detach from our relationship and sleep separately from you.
- When you are not actively engaging in recovery work on a daily basis I do not feel safe in our relationship. When I feel unsafe I will need to detach from you emotionally.
- I can not remain in a marriage with infidelity. If you choose to act out with another woman then I will file for divorce.
- I can not accept any form of pornography in my home. I will be placing filters/blocks on all electronic devices that are brought into this home. If you do not want filters on your device then it will have to remain outside fo the home. If you can not agree to this then I will enact a physical separation.
Also check out this post from my friend Kate about boundaries. She has a ton of great advice about the nuts and bolts of setting boundaries along with some other great examples.
How do I Know if My Boundaries are Healthy
A healthy boundary is one that keeps you inside your fence and keeps things that will hurt you out. A healthy boundary is about controlling yourself, not others (though it is ok to hope that our boundaries will motivate them to a healthy change).
At the Determined to Rise retreat this past September Dr. Sharon Rinearson of Core Relationship Recovery described boundaries as a hedge of thorns. Because fo the thorns people who want to hurt us can’t get in, we will protect ourselves from them. At the same time the thorns keep us inside our safe zone.
Sometimes boundaries hurt. Healthy boundaries are hard. When you have been a doormat in your relationship setting healthy boundaries will most often result in resentment, anger, and a lot of push-back from your spouse.
Sometimes the addict will even try to set counter boundaries that are meant to control you and your boundaries. Good, this means you’re doing it right! The hardest part of a healthy boundary is continuing to enforce your boundary even when it hurts you.
Separation from your spouse isn’t easy, but it is necessary if they are abusing you. A healthy boundary is paradoxically also flexible. If you are setting healthy boundaries then you are able to recognize when they are not working or no longer necessary.
Setting Boundaries Requires Support
Healing from addiction can’t be done in isolation and neither can healing from betrayal trauma. If you had a physical injury you would visit a doctor, go to rehab with a physical therapist, and find others to help and support you through your healing.
Emotional injury isn’t any different. You need help and support. A good therapist who is trained in betrayal trauma can be an amazing help in setting and maintaining healthy boundaries. You can find therapists who have been certified in betrayal trauma on the APSATS website.
Support groups are another great source of strength. When I initiated a separation from my husband earlier this year I never could have followed through on healthy boundaries without the support of the amazing ladies in my support groups. In person, online, and phone support groups can be found via ARP support, S-Anon, and Betrayal Trauma Recovery.
There are also several Facebook groups available for support. For safety and privacy these groups are secret, so you will have to find a person who you know struggles with these issues as well and ask them to have you added.
It can also be helpful to reach out to a few people you trust that can support you, even if they haven’t endured this specific trial. I have two amazing friends who have been there to help and support me whenever I need it. I have also had some amazing bishops (religious leader) who have given me strength to create and maintain healthy boundaries.
I have also had friends and religious leaders say less than helpful, and sometimes even traumatizing things to me when they hear my story. Prayerfully consider who you will seek support from and it’s ok to set a healthy boundary around who you talk to and what you share with them.